How To Cook A Live Goose

Aspiration, Pain, and Pleasure in an Eighteenth Century Recipe

Nobody really wants to torture animals anymore. We want our eggs free-range, our meat grass-fed, and our milk cruelty-free. We’re pretty much over cockfights and bull baiting. And our make-up better not be tested on animals.

Certainly, some people are indifferentto the living conditions of the animals they eat. And many can’t afford anything except for factory-farmed food. Agri-business and food processors try increase or protect their profits though often cruel practices. But for the most part, we don’t seek to torture animals these days.

That wasn’t always the case, though.

If you love reading old cookbooks (and who doesn’t) you might have come across the idea that eighteenth century folks thought that meat was healthier and tastier if animals suffered right before dying. Cooks and good huswives were instructed to beat an animal to death with a large cudgel, or to skin it alive, or in one spectacularly extreme recipe, to cook it while it was still alive.

In The Cooke’s Oracle, Dr. William Kirchiner related the following recipe.

Take a GOOSE or a DUCK, or some such lively creature, (but a goose is best of all for this purpose,) pull off all her feathers, only the head and neck must be spared: then make a fire round about her, not too close to her, that the smoke do not choke her, and that the fire may not burn her too soon; nor too far off, that she may not escape free: within the circle of the fire let there be set small cups and pots full of water, wherein salt and honey are mingled: and let there be set also chargers full of sodden apples, cut into small pieces in the dish. The goose must be all larded, and basted over with butter, to make her the more fit to be eaten, and may roast the better: put then fire about her, but do not make too much haste, when as you see her begin to roast; for by walking about, and flying here and there, being cooped in by the fire that stops her way out, the unwearied goose is kept in; she will fall to drink the water to quench her thirst and cool her heart, and all her body, and the apple-sauce will make her dung, and cleanse and empty her. And when she roasteth, and consumes inwardly, always wet her head and heart with a wet sponge; and when you see her giddy with running, and begin to stumble, her heart wants moisture, and she is roasted enough. Take her up, set her before your guests, and she will cry as you cut off any part from her, and will be almost eaten up before she be dead; it is mighty pleasant to behold!!

There is so much going on here that it bears paraphrasing:

First, the cook plucks the goose, except for the head and neck, and then covers its bare skin in a thick layer of butter. Then the cook builds a circular fire and places cups of salted honey water (eighteenth century Gatorade!) and applesauce inside it. Next, the still-living goose is placed inside the fire, where the writer claims, the goose will run around, sipping water, eating applesauce, voiding its bowels, until finally, it collapses, exhausted, heart still beating, flesh cooked to perfection. Finally, the cook brings it to the table where it cries, as it is carved and eaten.

The experience will be, the writer says, “pleasant to behold.”

I first came across this account more than ten years ago when I was studying the history of cookery at the University of Texas. I’ve told the story of this poor goose at more cocktail parties than I can count. Each time, the details were sufficiently grotesque to hold the attention of seasoned academics, well plied with booze.

The focus, for academics, was on the way pleasure and pain worked in this account. That is, although supposedly, eighteenth century wisdom would have the meat itself actually be better, tastier, and more healthful if the animal had experienced pain before death, this recipe seems to imply that part of the pleasure came from the diner actually witnessing the animals’ pain.

What I don’t recall any of the academics questioning was whether this account represented an actual practice. And that is worth considering.

So let us imagine an eighteenth century huswife, in the well-equipped kitchen of a large house, attempting to cook a live goose, as instructed by Dr. William Kirchiner.

The first matter was to pluck the live goose and then cover it in butter. Anyone who has ever met a live goose knows that geese are strong, fast, and aggressive. But if the cook were fast and strong, and had an equally fast, strong kitchen assistant, she could have trussed it tightly with some kind of rope and then managed these first steps without more than perhaps a bite and a bruise or two.

I suppose that is possible.

And I suppose it is possible that the cook hopped over the circular fire with the bound, buttered, struggling, slippery goose in her arms, released it from its trusses, and then hopped back out of the fire. With any luck, she did not trip on the dishes of water and applesauce that she had laid out for the goose, or catch her skirts on fire. Fireplaces in the eighteenth century could be huge and rather open, especially in the kitchens of large houses. And the geese were probably smaller, and the people stronger and more inured to pain.

So let’s just say that the cook survived the first part of the recipe without major injury.

The cook then had to hope that the goose, surrounded by fire, plucked, covered in butter, in a state of panic and terror, would pause to sip water and eat applesauce.

It seems unlikely, yet suppose it happened.

Then, we are told, the applesauce should have caused the goose to void its bowels uncontrollably, all the while running about until it exhausts itself and falls down. That event signaled to the cook that the goose’s flesh was cooked.

Quickly, before the gooses heart stopped, the cook had to leap over the fire, lift the bird clear, plate it, take it to the table and carve its flesh so that guests could enjoy its plaintive, last cries while eating its crisp skin.

Try to picture that. The goose’s skin must necessarily be covered in ash from the fire and, not to put to fine a point on it, its own shit. Because there is no way that goose was not stepping in shit and ash while it was running around exhausting itself. And there was no way that anyone could clean off the bird’s skin without hosing it down.

Do we suppose that the guests then ate this shit and ash covered bird all the while delighting in its cries of pain?

No. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, at any time, actually produced this dish. It seems not just impossible, but impossibly weird.

And that’s the thing about other peoples’ food. It’s weird. By weird, I don’t mean objectively weird but relatively weird. What other people eat is weird relative to what you (or I) eat.

And that’s one thing that makes cookbooks so fascinating. Food and eating are universal but also, deeply specific to time, place, class, and so on.

And here’s something that’s pretty universal to cookbooks and domestic texts. There are often, not to put too fine a point on it, full of shit. Or to put it in another way, cookbooks are often as often aspirational as they are practical. That is, people buy cookbooks for all sorts of reasons besides wanting to know how to cook. They want to see what other, fancier people eat. They collect cookbooks, as objects to be displayed. They use them to daydream about that big dinner party they might someday give and definitely impress all their friends.

And it is likely that this recipe was just that: an aspirational recipe that a good huswife could mull over, imagining that someday she could really, really impress her friends.

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